My vegan journey began in March 2016.
Like all significant life changes I’ve made, I chose to go all in, rather than dip my toe in the plant-based water first.
Within 24 hours my partner and I had disposed of all the meat, fish and dairy products in our fridge freezer.
I recall having mixed emotions at the time, I felt a deep sadness that I was literally wasting the lives of sentient beings.
But it also felt great to no longer have a tomb masqueraded as an appliance in my kitchen.
And so, complete with a small head of broccoli, ketchup and a few bendy carrots, I began to come out of the carnivorous closet and announce that I’m vegan.
But unlike when I came out as gay, I quickly came to realise that there was so much more to being vegan than swapping chicken for chik’n.
The Lies, The Wish and The Wardrobe…
Around June 2016, during a meeting, a client’s curiosity led us onto the topic of veganism.
She claimed to be ‘about 95% vegan’ in that 5% of her swore by bone broth as a cure for colds and flu.
Meanwhile 100% of me just wanted to call her ridiculous and run out of the room.
But I didn’t.
I stayed and the conversation quickly moved away from vegan food onto vegan fashion.
She plopped her luxury designer leather handbag on the table in front of me, and professed that she finds it ok because leather is simply a by-product of cattle being slaughtered for meat.
She went on to justify her position claiming that the material would otherwise be discarded.
The truth of the matter is, despite my intuition telling me she was wrong, I was sitting there the whole time wearing leather shoes.
My pre-vegan days were starting to catch up with me and my behaviour was at odds with my beliefs.
I practically ran home that day – compelled to educate myself on the animal leather industry.
The stats didn’t lie and it became blatant that we (consumers) often tell ourselves all kinds of stories to alleviate guilt and diffuse responsibility.
The truth is the animal leather industry is a financially lucrative business within itself:
“A wide variety of animal species are used to make leather — most notably cattle, but also pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, snakes, sting rays, seals, emus, deer, fish, kangaroos, horses, cats and dogs. Even baby animals don’t escape the leather industry — with the skins of calves, kids and lambs considered particularly valuable because of their softness.
Hundreds of thousands of days-old ‘bobby’ calves born into the dairy industry are slaughtered every year in Australia, with their skins then used to make boots, bags and other products for the fashion industry. Even unborn calves (called slinks), whose pregnant mothers are killed in slaughterhouses, may be skinned. The skin from these premature animals is particularly sought-after for its delicateness” – Animals Australia
I wished it wasn’t true, but it was and this new found knowledge marked the end of an era for this self-confessed sneaker addict.
It was time to clean out my closet once and for all.
I’d been lying to myself to fuel my own benevolent self-interest.
The truth was, I really didn’t want to get rid of every single pair of Jordans I’d spent hours queuing up for since the age of 14.
And so, there I was, ready to take my next step into the vegan lifestyle beyond food.
From there, I quickly came to realise that going vegan is like opening up pandora’s box.
Vegan psychologist Clare Mann recently coined the phrase ‘Vystopia’ to describe the anguish of being vegan in a non-vegan world.
I didn’t know at the time, but this was what I was experiencing. Only this was a conflict that existed in my internal world too.
The more I started to learn, the more I began to hold myself accountable for the choices I was making.
I no longer convinced myself that those Nike shoes were vegan simply because they had a synthetic upper.
Because those shoes were still held together by animal based glue and were being assembled by workers who didn’t get paid a fair wage in factories owned by a company that still refuses to set itself any carbon reduction targets.
After all, products aren’t vegan if they offset cost.
They’re vegan because they eliminate or reduce cost wherever possible.
Killing the buzz
The global vegan movement marks a new opportunity for corporations to demonstrate social responsibility, without necessarily having to create significant changes to their supply chain.
There’s nothing stopping big brands claiming to be vegan simply by removing animal based materials or ingredients.
So unless customers seek out more information and ethical brands feed this curiosity, they will continue to break new ground.
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, predicted a plant-based revolution was coming in 2016.
Yet, from a consumer’s perspective, machine learning is such that despite Google’s capacity to return accurate results to the user, on any given day people just discovering the vegan lifestyle, are going to be faced with inaccurate results.
Let’s take the example of “vegan shoes” (again)
The top organic search result here in Australia just happens to be a client of mine, Vegan Style. (No that’s not a coincidence)
However, major retailers like ASOS also pop up too offering “vegan” shoes for half the price.
The difference here, is no different from the Nike example I gave earlier.
So it’s really down to vegan businesses to kill the buzz of the word itself in the midst of its “corporate colonisation”
And that starts with ethical vegan businesses holding themselves accountable and asking the same of their consumers.
After all, how can you claim to be an ethical brand if your customers are not?
The fact is, corporations will continue to provide people with easy solutions to their problems.
They will continue to penetrate growth markets to make a monetary profit.
They will continue to place themselves front and centre of the customer’s journey as long as it results in a profit.
So as long as there are people going vegan, there’s going to be an increasing demand for products that don’t contain animals.
It’s simple economics.
The majority of people don’t have the inclination to sit and research the transparency and ethical fabric of parent companies.
Self-interest is hard to ignore, and it’s a fine line to walk between being informed and being self-righteous.
Let’s face it, nobody likes a know-it-all, nobody wants to feel stupid, nobody wants to be told the changes they’ve made aren’t enough.
So what can ethical vegan business owners do to protect to encourage customers to make ethical vegan choices?
Be 100% transparent
Say you’ve just discovered a brand you stock no longer aligns with your values, be open and honest about your standpoint.
Leverage mediums such as Facebook live to communicate any changes you’re making so your community can feel connected to your journey.
Be for something not against it
Rather than focusing on the big bad corporations encroaching on what you see as your sector, focus on communicating from a position of positivity.
Share examples of workers being paid a fair wage and articulate how your efforts have a positive impact on society.
By being open and authentic you’ll demonstrate yourself as a thought leader.
Remember these 3 E’s: Educate, Empower, Entertain!
Be open to feedback
5 star reviews are great but as businesses, we don’t learn from these.
What’s of real interest is the 3 or 4 star reviews because they show you how you can improve.
As big businesses continue to invest in AI customer service, this poses an opportunity for ethical vegan businesses to set themselves apart from big brands by offering a person to connect with to solve their problems as opposed to a robot.
As Brene Brown often says, we’re hard-wired for connection, so let’s go out there and connect!
In the midst of veganism continuing to go mainstream, as an ethical vegan business owner you might want to consider:
- How well do I know my customers?
- What you I offer that corporate brand cannot?
- How can I communicate the value of my brand?
And if you’re a consumer looking to make conscious purchasing choices, always keep in mind one question: am I serving my beliefs or my own self-interest?
All in all, we are all on a journey and removing animal products from our plate is just the start.
As vegan businesses we need to remember the 3 E’s and as consumers we need to remember that conscious purchasing is about creating positive outcomes for everyone – people, animals and our environment.
Now over to you, how do you feel about the points raised and the future of ethical vegan business?